Monday, December 10, 2007

encyclopedic surreality

The politics of the image is a topic that has been often noted; the appropriationists of the 1980s selected details of already existing photographs, or replicated famous images in their entirety in a new context, to bring new implications and new emotional baggage to pictures already sedimented into history or into popular culture. (And Richard Prince is currently engaged in a major conflict with a commercial photographer who is horrified to realize the photo he took for anonymous publication in a Marlboro ad is now thought of as a Richard Prince photograph. As Prince remarked, "I've never really thought of advertising photographs as being by anybody," which of course is the point Prince should have been making all along.)

Images become strange when their cultural context falls away; the surrealists not only juxtaposed strangely unrelated objects as per Lautréamont's chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table, they delighted in the unexpected strangeness of the remnants of one historical epoch when encountered in another; the shop windows of the endangered arcades of Paris, full of outdated merchandise in arrangements left unaltered for decades, and the signage targeted at the respectable bourgeoisie of the Second Empire, sentimental and absurd fifty years later in the traumatized waning years of the Third Republic. All the mythologies of objects that were not apparent to those who took them at face value were laid bare when the images that supported them were recycled by the hip artist-technologists of France circa 1920.

Hence the value of a map detail of Portuguese Africa put next to the soldiers and fighter pilots of Eisenhower's America the year before the Marines landed in Lebanon and more or less peacefully defused the situation in 1958. Hence the intrinsic interest that lies within the act of disassembling the diagrams by which "young people" were meant to learn how the relations of the world worked.

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